Doing More with Less

I wrote this in response to the BlogHer prompt: ‘Tell us about a time you did more with less’. This is about the time when I had the least resources and had to do the most with them.

I was 2 weeks into a trip around South America for which I had left my home, job and boyfriend. I had spent all my savings and more, in my hurry to escape a bad situation at home, but came back when I found I was already 6 weeks pregnant.

I returned with nothing – nothing, except the baby growing inside me. When she was born, I was living in a cold, damp flat behind a florists shop. It never warmed up. At night I would blast out every plug-in heater I had, trying to get that thermometer – the one that told me what was a safe temperature for the nursery – to creep over 16  degrees. I tried not to think about the fuel costs. I would lay her down wrapped in blankets, two pairs of socks on her feet, one on her hands, 3 sleep-suits underneath the fleece baby-suit I found cheap in Woolworth; and  still, in the morning, her hands would be cold underneath the socks.

I cried, often, as I crawled in and out of bed to comfort her when she woke, the cold biting my bare skin like a thousand tiny mosquitoes.

I started a job when she was 8 months old. Slowly, painfully, I tried to build up a life for us. It was a million miles away from the life of clubs, bars and travel that I had inhabited before. When the loneliness and exhaustion felt overwhelming, I shed my tears behind the curtains at the hospital where I worked; small drops in an ocean, they went unnoticed.

My baby cried when I left her at nursery, and she cried when I brought her home. The neighbours watched us suspiciously. Sometimes the washing would go missing from the line in the yard that we shared. I tried not to go out there; it was gravelly, full of sharp stones which rolled and spiked underfoot, and dogs made their messes there. It was no place for a baby.

I borrowed parenting books and magazines from the library and measured my parenting against the standards I found there. I agonised over whether to use cloth or disposable nappies. I weaned her just as the books said, steaming and pureeing vegetables, storing them in ice cubes, feeding her organic food which I got into debt to buy. I worried about whether leaving her at nursery was damaging, as the research in the papers said. I felt guilty for working, and guilty for not working enough – ashamed of our poverty. The adverts and articles in the magazines taunted me with glossy pictures of the smart educational toys that every mother should buy for her baby. My baby would never have these things.

I had never asked so much of myself, from so few resources . I was mired in despair; I could only fail.

I had not counted on her.

One day I looked down at her, crawling by my feet as I cooked. In my weary brain fog I hadn’t noticed her following me into the tiny square of kitchen (there were no gates to keep her safe in this house). She had emptied the cupboard of the cheap aluminium saucepans I had bought, lined them up on the floor, and now she was banging them with a wooden spoon. She was listening to the sound, observing how each one had a different tone. Now she was bashing them together, putting one inside the other. Stacking them.

I suddenly realised that she was learning. Despite the lack of expensive plastic equipment that flashed and bleeped and spoke to her, she was learning.

After I had fed, bathed and dressed her, maintaining the monologue I always forced myself to continue (though the habit was making me talk to myself even when I wasn’t with my baby), I sat her down near the fish. Somebody had asked us to take care of these fish for them, and she never tired of watching them. She laughed and laughed every time they moved.

I realised that she was enjoying life. Despite my failure to provide even the basic comforts of home (warmth) let alone a stable father or a happy mother, she was laughing and having fun. 

I looked at her incredulously. How could this be possible? How could she be happy? I felt a lightening, a lifting of the fog. Enough to make me try. Enough to make me think that I could do it.

As winter finally gave way to summer, we spent all of our free days in the park. She walked, ran, and climbed – growing strong and agile, even though she had never had a baby walker, a climbing frame in the garden, or even a garden. She grew tall and learned to speak in full sentences, sounding so mature that people asked why she wasn’t at school, a full year before she was old enough to go.

A few years later, I walked into Parents Evening with trepidation. The teacher smiled and began

‘Very bright little girl. Very able.’

I stored it in my brain along with every other small compliment, every single affirmation that my baby could not only meet expectations, she could exceed them:

‘Beautiful manners’, ‘such a good imagination’, ‘popular’.

I added them up, and I thought – yes, yes, I did it. I succeeded. We succeeded, despite those early years struggles:

We did more, with less.


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